Charles J. Zoerb never set foot in Vietnam, but from his printing presses on Okinawa he helped create weapons to expose North Vietnamese infiltrators and help demoralize the enemy.
So, in his case, you could say the pen was mightier than the sword.
And Zoerb was well prepared for his role in the Army’s 15th Psychological Operations printing branch. Before he was drafted, he had worked as a printer at Arcata Graphics in Cheektowaga.
Twenty-two years old at the time, Zoerb had never imagined he would be able to utilize his civilian trade. He was certain that when he was drafted he was destined to serve in the Army infantry in Vietnam.
“We were told to look at the person next to you because he was going to Vietnam, and the person next to you was looking at you. But right after I completed boot camp and two days in advanced infantry training, I was pulled out and sent to Fort Eustis in Virginia,” he said of how the military began making use of his printing abilities.
With a top secret security clearance, he arrived on the Pacific island of Okinawa on Feb. 18, 1966, assigned to a fully furnished print shop that operated nonstop.
Under the guidance of U.S. military brass and South Vietnamese officials, Zoerb and 29 other printers produced counterfeit money and propaganda leaflets.
The fake currency, he said, was the more devious of what rolled off the presses.
“It was scattered from airplanes flying above North Vietnam. When infiltrators headed to South Vietnam with that money, they could be identified because the cash had special markings and serial numbers,” Zoerb explained.
Those caught carrying the fake bills would be arrested and interrogated, he said.
“We printed tens of millions of these bills to also flood and destroy the economy in the north,” he added.
Charles J. Zoerb, 73
Rank: Specialist E-5
War zone: Vietnam era, Okinawa
Years of service: Drafted, February 1965 - March 1967
Most prominent honors: Unit Commendation Award, Good Conduct Medal
Zoerb’s skills were appreciated by his superiors who placed him in charge of the two off-set printing presses.
“During one eight-hour shift, one of those off-set presses could produce close to 180,000 bills, just to give you an idea of how much money we were printing,” he said. “We also had two sheet presses and they were quite a bit slower, but one of them could print 80,000 bills in a shift.”
The South Vietnamese officials, Zoerb said, paid the printers a rich compliment when they expressed amazement over the quality of the counterfeit cash.
The counterfeit operation occurred on the midnight shift for security purposes. During the day and evening shifts, printers churned out the propaganda pamphlets.
“Because we didn’t have to worry as much about the quality of the pamphlets, we could increase the quantity coming off each of the presses,” Zoerb said.
He says he has no exact numbers, but estimates that millions of leaflets were printed containing various messages urging the enemy to give up and surrender.
For 12 months, Zoerb continued at this job, taking satisfaction in knowing he was contributing to making life difficult for the enemy.
But, he is quick to add that he considers himself “extremely lucky” to have had that type of wartime duty.
“It wasn’t like I asked for it. It’s just how my orders came through and I did what I had to do,” he said. “My thoughts were always with the Army and Marines who were stationed in Vietnam doing the fighting. My thoughts are still with them.”
When Zoerb returned to the United States and was honorably discharged in early March 1967, he brought home with him some of his handiwork.
“I have a dozen or so counterfeit bills and propaganda leaflets,” he said of his war souvenirs.
Engaged before he was drafted, he married the former Patricia Slimko of Lancaster in May 1967.
“She waited for me and I’m glad she did because she is the best ever,” said Zoerb, who raised two children with his wife of nearly five decades.
As for his printing career, he returned to Arcata Graphics, but soon learned that he had lost his seniority, “even with my experience on Okinawa.”
So he moved on and eventually took a job with the New York State Thruway Authority, retiring after 30 years as a supervisor in facilities maintenance. He says he is proud of his memberships in the Alden VFW Post 7967, East Aurora American Legion Post 362 and the Aurora Vietnam Veterans.
Over the years, he has delighted in telling fellow veterans, relatives and friends about his unusual wartime service:
“I tell them that you are looking at the only person you will ever meet who legally printed counterfeit money.”
He says it never fails to produce a chuckle. And that’s when he gleefully adds: